Archive | February, 2013

Winter’s Bone (2010)

26 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ree Dolly is an unflinching, tough, 17-year-old Southern girl who does not take “no” for an answer and believes that anything not offered shouldn’t be asked for. She acts as a parent to her two younger siblings, while her real mother is mentally absent and her father, a meth cooker, is arrested. She cares for them all (except her father, of course) with welfare and help from a friendly neighbor—they all live in the backlands of the Ozarks, near the Arkansas border line. She is also the most engaging movie heroine in a long time. In Debra Granik’s film, “Winter’s Bone,” she is forced to carry a task to save her family’s property. She is an ordinary person who must rise to an occasion.

The conflict: Ree’s father, who was arrested for cooking meth, is missing and he put everything on bond, including the family house. Ree is visited by the sheriff, who tells her on the house porch that if her dad doesn’t show up at court, she and her family lose the house. She looks into the woods in thought when the sheriff asks, “You got someplace to go?” She says, “I’ll find him.” The sheriff doesn’t believe her—“Girl, I been lookin’.” She looks back at him and sternly repeats, “I said I’ll find him.” And just like that, she sets out to question many family members for clues or answers as to where her father is.

The whole family, except for Ree who would want her siblings to never fall into the habit as well, cooks methamphetamine and keeps to themselves. They give wary looks to outsiders (like the sheriff and the bond trader) who visit Ree and constantly remind her that the house will no longer be their property. Ree’s uncle Teardrop doesn’t know where his brother is and advises Ree not to go looking for him either. But she does, and this leads to brutal confrontations—one of which brings a league of mountain women to beat her hard. (When she comes to, she asks if they’ll kill her. One of them says they were thinking about it.) It seems like this search will jeopardize her life, but she will never stop looking for her father, dead or alive.

“Winter’s Bone” was filmed on location in one of the bleakest of living environments. Living in the backlands of the Ozarks, the rural area looks like it used to a town but is now caught in a Depression-type state. There are houses, but there are also shacks, sheds, and piles of junk almost all around. With only a few modern conveniences, the locals live here in relaxation. But from another perspective, it’s depressing rather than relaxing. I loved how director Debra Granik framed every shot to make us see something new about this place. Ree has lived here her whole life and is becoming a strong, independent woman and her younger siblings are as cheerful as they can be, without knowing what misfortune they have. This may not be true, but maybe the reason that the mother is mentally absent is because of the depression of her surroundings—maybe she realized the difficulty of her situations in parenting and couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe. But anyway, the rest of the people in this rural area are suspicious, violent, and cold-hearted.

Ree Dolly is played by Jennifer Lawrence in an excellent, star-making performance. There is no wrong note in this performance. She has a convincing, forceful personality that really brings this character to life. Also very effective is John Hawkes, as fearsome uncle Teardrop, and Dale Dickey as one of the mountain women who challenges Ree, and also assaults her midway through the film. There are other effective performances from amateur actors who make their first appearances in this film and it’s amazing to see how natural they are—there is no cliché dealing with their characters.

“Winter’s Bone” has suspense, a compelling main character, intriguing supporting characters, a murky look to the Ozarks, and a story worth telling. To me, this is one of the best movies of 2010 and I certainly hope this film is remembered as years go by, most notably for Jennifer Lawrence’s flawless portrayal of an ordinary person rising to the occasion.

NOTE: “Winter’s Bone” also won the Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance for “Best Picture” and “Best Adapted Screenplay.” It also won the Golden Rock Award at the Little Rock Film Festival—at the awards gala (I won an award there too—a screenwriting award), I was fortunate enough to meet Shelley Waggener, the actress who played Sonya, the friendly neighbor who helps Ree and her family.

Dredd (2012)

26 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I never considered “Judge Dredd” a household name when it comes to comic book lovers, but then again, I myself am not a comic book lover (not that there’s anything wrong with being one), so I’m not one to talk. Maybe there is a fan base out there, though I’m certain if there is, they didn’t take well to the cheesiness of the 1995 film adaptation “Judge Dredd,” starring Sylvester Stallone as the title character. That being said, this 2012 “second try” to adapt the comic book series—simply entitled “Dredd” or “Dredd 3D”—is probably the best film adaptation those people could ask for.

To put it simple, “Dredd” is a heavily-stylized, extremely-violent action film that kicks ass. It’s an insanely forceful thrill ride from start to finish, with a dose of intense violence mixed with dark comic streaks. Once the action picks up, it never lets up—in fact, by the time this movie was over, I was exhausted by what was being thrown at me.

It’s an odd thing for me to say “being thrown at me,” since I didn’t wind up seeing it in 3D. Speaking of which, I’m glad I didn’t. Forget that 3D kind of makes things unbearable in movies; even if “Dredd” did it right, I would still be suffering vertigo nonetheless. We get towering, hovering, panning shots above and below great tower heights, among many instinctual visuals done greatly by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. His artistic style to “Dredd” is unbelievable and the action scenes, as a result, are suitably graphic and well-choreographed. “Dredd” is a visual treat, to say the absolute least.

But it’s also not for the faint of heart. An example of this style comes early in the film (and which makes a few reprisals here and there)—you don’t just see a bullet enter someone’s face; you see every blood drop explode outward, in slow-motion.

The story takes place in the future, which of course sucks. It’s always lousy in the future in the movies, isn’t it? In this “cursed Earth,” a dystopian large city, the law enforcers serve as judge, jury, and executioner all in one. The baddest of them all is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban)—with a cool uniform, a helmet that covers the top half of his face (we never see him take the thing off), and a cold, monotone voice recalling Clint Eastwood and Batman.

Karl Urban is unrecognizable as Dredd. That’s not just because we never see his face partially covered by that helmet, leaving his mouth and chin exposed, but because of his deep growl and his deadpan persona. You’d never link this man to the 2009 “Star Trek” (he played young Bones McCoy). He’s also grimly funny too, as he delivers one-liners in the most depraved situations he runs into, providing some very big laughs.

Also a lot of fun is Olivia Thirlby, best known for her indie roles as “Juno’s” best friend and the pretty high school girlfriend in “Snow Angels.” Here, she plays a blonde mop-haired psychic “mutie” (slang for “mutant” in this world—I guess stealing “muto” from “Waterworld” was too much) who becomes the rookie Judge Anderson. Thirlby displays a calm (yet somewhat ethereal) yet confident screen presence, whether it’s looking danger in the eyes or through their heads (because she has the power to enter your mind and mess with it to seek information—now that’s awesome). She’s a ton of fun and delivers some badass moments as well. She is no damsel in distress.

The real story begins as Dredd and Anderson respond to a disturbance at the 200-tower Peach Trees housing complex and interrupt a party where the latest drug is being used—a drug that allows everything in your perspective to slow down time (this is where a lot of slow-motion visual styles come into place). Facial-scarred drug-lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) has been killing her subjects by enforcing the drug onto them, and pushing them out the window from the top floor, making their fall seem longer than it is. Dredd and Anderson take a suspect (Wood Harris) into custody. Knowing that they will interrogate him for information, Ma-Ma forcefully arranges for the entire building to be locked down and insists that she’ll keep it this way until the Judges are caught and killed.

This sets up a series of events that lead to close calls, strikebacks, shootouts, and just about everything else you’d expect to see here. “Dredd” pulls out all the stops and then some. This film is alive with energy as Dredd and Anderson find new ways to outsmart the heavily dangerous thugs looking to shoot anything that moves. But it’s OK—the Judges have specially designed guns that have voice command and many features (automatic fire, stun, double-whammy, and more). That gives them advantages that lead to some impressive developments.

“Dredd” is violent, bloody, heavily-stylized…and it’s just so freaking cool. There’s never a dull moment, it’s visually exciting, the action is top-notch, and it’s just an intense thrill ride from beginning to end. I look forward to a sequel, and I think there will be one, seeing as how audiences are hungry for mindless entertainment. I guess I could describe “Dredd” as precisely that, but that would be considered an understatement. This movie just kicks ass.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

26 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you team up a pair of comic actors in a movie, there’s either a danger of going over the top or not having enough chemistry on screen. But Steve Martin and John Candy are perfectly cast and are in a script that doesn’t let them down and carry the film, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” greatly. There is chemistry here and they never go over the top.

The film is about a road trip featuring two strangers who have to be home for Thanksgiving and will get there any way they can—planes, trains, or automobiles. Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an uptight advertising salesman trying to get from New York to Chicago. During rush hour (and two days before Thanksgiving), he has a hard time finding a cab in the city and when he finally flags one down, it is stolen (unintentionally) by Del Griffith (John Candy), a traveling shower-curtain-ring salesman. He’s also from Chicago. When the two men meet at the airport, Del feels genuinely sorry for stealing Neal’s cab. Neal tells him to forget it. But as fate would have it, Neal and Del wind up trapped in each other’s company, on the plane and off.

This leads to a night in which the two land in Wichita, Kansas, since a snowstorm has hit the O’Hare airport in Chicago. “We’d have a better chance of playing pick-up sticks with our butt cheeks than getting a flight out of here tonight,” Del tells Neal. And this also leads to a night at a motel…but their room is a single. That’s right—one bed. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Neal and Del wake up the next morning cuddled against each other. (“Why are you holding my hand?” “Where’s your other hand?” “Between two pillows.” “Those aren’t pillows!”)

And as the film goes on, Neal and Del continue to make their way home, while Neal tries multiple times to get rid of Del. But there’s nothing that can separate them forever. In one of the best scenes in the film, they wind up renting a car and driving at night together when they don’t realize that they are going the wrong way on an expressway. This results in what is probably the only funny joke that a movie can make about a car and two oncoming trucks.

“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is written by John Hughes, who also serves as director and producer, and it’s a pleasant surprise, considering that John Hughes specializes in teenage comedies and apparently searched for something more. So now he has “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” a movie featuring a road trip with a great deal of character development and physical comedy. John Hughes had written a comedy about a road trip before (1983’s “Vacation”). This film is even better because the comedy is based on character and reveals heart and truth.

For example, we have the scene in which Neal snaps at Del that night in the motel in Wichita. He shows no mercy, telling Del that he doesn’t know how to tell an interesting story and that he would rather attend an insurance seminar than listen to another one of his anecdotes again. He goes on and on, as Del doesn’t show anger. His face falls; he’s genuinely sad and hurt. He realizes that he was so eager to please and has tried too hard. It’s a scene that reveals comedy and drama in the way that it reveals heart and truth. And that’s not even close to the end of the film, even though it could be the end of a short film (and feels like it, too). It’s this point in which Del wins our hearts and we enjoy watching him through the rest of the film. As for Neal, he learns about patience and slowly but surely develops a friendship with Del.

This is where the film really shines—Steve Martin and John Candy are absolutely great together and they play characters that are funny and empathetic. They’re the classic Odd Couple—one is ordinary and wound up while the other is a slob but more outgoing. But if I didn’t make it clear in the paragraph above, they don’t play caricatures. They play three-dimensional human beings.

“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” leads to the emotional payoff in the final scenes. After all we’ve seen of these two characters and been through what they’ve been through, you’d expect a great payoff. Luckily, this film has one in the way that it gives us exactly what we needed for this material.

NOTE: This film is rated R by the MPAA. Well, I’ll tell you this—fast-forward through the scene midway through the film in which Neal confronts a car rental agent played by Edie McClurg. That scene has the only times you’ll hear the F word—19 times, in fact. Omit that scene and the film is good viewing for the whole family on Thanksgiving night.

Children of Men (2006)

26 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“This is how the world will end…this is how the world will end…this is how the world will end…not with a bang but with a whimper.” –T.S. Eliot

That is exactly what is happening to the world in the action film “Children of Men,” a bleak, action-packed, wicked thriller that takes place in the year 2027. The Earth has become practically uninhabitable and anarchic. Natural disasters, terrorism, and war have brought the world to hell. All borders are closed permanently, which means anyone who tries to step into new territory is declared an illegal immigrant and forced to go with others to a prison where they will eventually be executed. But it gets worse—humans have become infertile. It is exceedingly rare for a woman to be pregnant. As the movie opens, a newscast informs us that the world’s youngest person (at age 18) is dead. With this knowledge, you can sense that in a few decades, the human race will become extinct. Soon, others will die until the last man on Earth will die. No one else will go on because there are no more births. That is the subtext throughout “Children of Men” and it’s a profoundly creepy one.

The movie takes place in England, where a man named Theo (Clive Owen) gets a coffee one morning and sees the newscast about the death of the youngest person on the planet. He then steps outside to wait for a bus when suddenly, the coffee house explodes! Not only is this surprising, but watch Theo’s reactions to the destruction. At first, we see him as this ignorant tough guy we see in a lot of action movies. But when the coffee house explodes, he shows off a real sense of fear—he is startled by this occurrence, as anyone would be.

Theo has his way of showing concern about this now-damaged world, but he prefers to think about being with his pot-smoking best friend Jasper (a bewigged Michael Caine, wonderfully cast), who is even more ignorant of more or less…everything. But he is soon captured by his former wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and her associate Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who are part of a rebellion against the now-corrupt government (or what’s left of a government). They need Theo to help them to smuggle a young African woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) out of the country to a place where she might be safe from everyone else. (It is said that there is a ship called The Tomorrow, which rescues and harbors said “illegal immigrants”). This woman needs to be protected because she holds the key to the future of Earth’s society. Theo doesn’t realize why Kee is so important until after a few angry run-ins with wild townspeople and the police. It turns out Kee is pregnant—the first baby to be born in 18 years. “Now you know what’s at stake here,” Luke calmly explains to Theo.

Soon, Theo and Kee are on the journey to get past the border unseen and unharmed. But of course, this is not going to be easy. They are pursued by many people (including security troops) and partake in many action sequences. But these scenes are so convincing—so well-executed—that you realize just what they’re about. You never forget what is at stake in this story. Director Alfonso Cuaron (who also directed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) has an amazing visual style and executes every action sequence well, and I love how a lot of these scenes are in a single ongoing shot. Every action scene is desperate and with purpose. Cuaron knows how to stage this kind of situation and Clive Owen captures the sense of fear and desperation. Owen is ultimately solid in this movie. He has a cool attitude, yet has a sense of vulnerability that he doesn’t show but you can tell during certain shots.

I love the way the storyline of “Children of Men” develops into something bigger than it began with. When the movie opens, we already sense the world ending because of humanity’s wasting away. Now when Kee arrives and needs to be saved, we see that the world can either remain the way it is (maybe even worse) or be preserved for a new generation. It all depends on Theo’s actions—he has his own demons with his former wife, which haunts him after her arrival.

Also, there is great cinematography. When Theo walks through a desolate London, it looks like a real place. It’s incredible, how the filmmakers were able to make this into a dark, scary place to live in (or even walk in). The settings get darker as Theo goes on this dangerous journey to the border and even through the immigrant prison. It’s all convincing.

“Children of Men” belongs in a class with “Mad Max” and “Blade Runner,” but it may be better than those two references. This is a movie that shows an even darker approach to futuristic fiction and serves as a cautionary tale. It shows a world that is indeed not ending with a bang but with a whimper.

Friends with Benefits (2011)

26 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Friends With Benefits” is the title of a romantic comedy featuring exactly what the title suggests—a man and woman who are friends but also sexual partners with no plans of a loving relationship. (I think Jane Lynch put it best in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”—the easiest term is “*bleep*-buddy.”) But “Friends With Benefits,” despite its title, is not the first movie to show us this relationship. It hasn’t even been a year since “Love and Other Drugs” and “No Strings Attached” were released, featuring the same “friends with benefits” element. There really isn’t anything new in “Friends With Benefits”—it’s a romantic comedy in which the two leads start out as friends, have sex repeatedly, realize they have feelings for each other, have certain complications in dealing with those emotions, and (spoiler alert) they end up together. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In fact, I really liked “Friends With Benefits.” It uses rom-com formulas, but has fun with them in a self-referential way.

One of the reasons for the success behind “Friends With Benefits” is the pairing of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as the two leads. These two are impossible to dislike—they’re appealing individually and engaging together. They’re not mismatched in the slightest, their characters are well-developed, and they never annoy the audience.

Describing the plot is somewhat pointless, but it’s probably best to mention a few things. Timberlake plays Dylan, a Los Angeles-based editor of a popular blog, who is recruited for a job in New York working for GQ Magazine. Kunis plays Jamie, a headhunter who flew Dylan there and shows him around the city. Soon, Dylan and Jamie become good friends, but are also attracted to each other physically. So they agree to become friends without romance—“No relationship,” Jamie explains, “No emotions, just sex.”

Of course, this works for a while. Of course, they start to fall for one another. Of course, they don’t know how to handle this. Of course—well, you get it, mainly. You know the formula; it’s been done before. But what makes “Friends With Benefits” worth watching is not only the convincing chemistry and charm between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, but also its self-aware screenplay. There are a lot of funny lines of dialogue (mostly involving the leads picking apart some romantic comedy clichés) and some running gags (some including references to rapper-duo Kriss Kross) that work. This movie is quite funny in a dopey but consistently smart way.

The supporting cast is also game and funny. Jenna Elfman has some funny lines as Dylan’s knowing, sassy sister; Patricia Clarkson is hilarious as Jamie’s wisecracking mother; Richard Jenkins doesn’t overdo it with his character of Dylan’s father, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease; there are welcome cameos by Andy Samberg, Emma Stone, and the pairing of Jason Segel & Rashida Jones (whose rom-com-within-a-rom-com that the characters watch is hilarious); and there’s also a young actor named Nolan Gould who has his share of funny moments as Dylan’s aspiring magician nephew. I know I should have already mentioned Woody Harrelson as a gay sports editor who constantly comes on to Dylan, but to be honest…I never found him very funny in this. He just came across as obnoxious.

So even if “Friends With Benefits” is mostly predictable, it makes up for it with two charming lead actors, an engaging supporting cast, and a winning screenplay. It’s easy to like “Friends With Benefits” and not feel embarrassed by saying so.

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The first thing to say about “Child’s Play 2”—There is absolutely no reason to have a sequel to the sleeper horror film “Child’s Play,” on the basis of the many continuity errors and logical flaws that make up most of this movie.

The problems begin right at the start. See if you can follow this. If you recall, the first movie, “Child’s Play,” featured a Good Guy doll possessed by the soul of the serial killer Charles Lee “Chucky” Ray. As he attempted to transfer his soul into a little boy named Andy (Alex Vincent), he was killed by the boy’s mother and a cop…in every way you can think of—burnt to death, decapitated, and then finally shot in the heart. Now, we have “Child’s Play 2” as it begins with the charred remains of the doll apparently brought back to the toy factory from the crime scene, being rebuilt. Why would they clean it up and rebuild it?! Doesn’t that toy factory have enough of those creepy little dolls?

Well, sure enough, Chucky is brought back to life as his doll body is restored to its original state. How that happened, I don’t know. But hey—we have a sequel!

The little boy Andy (Alex Vincent, who to his credit does a better acting job here than in the previous movie) is taken away from his mother and taken in by a couple of foster parents (Jenny Agutter and Gerrit Graham). At the same time, Chucky the doll (voiced by Brad Dourif) makes his way to the house in order to transfer his soul into Andy. Otherwise, he becomes trapped in the doll’s body.

This should be a simple task, but no. If there was a reasonable excuse for Chucky not to go after Andy right away, we wouldn’t have a movie and the little boy in jeopardy wouldn’t be…in jeopardy. So instead of focusing his time on going after Andy, he simply kills—and not even the people he should until much later in the movie. Chucky even kills the foster family’s Good Guy doll and buries it in the yard so he’ll take its place. And then when he finally has a chance to perform the spell that transfers his soul, the older foster child interrupts him. This is supposed to be a “killer doll”—why not just kill her and continue the spell?

And there’s a real sick way this movie handles Andy—the boy is taken away from his mother, forced to live with foster parents, and is even blamed for the death of one of them. Everywhere he goes, someone gets killed and there’s nothing he can do about it.

“Child’s Play 2” is really nothing special—it’s just a sick horror movie. It has two things going for it, though. First is, Chucky is still a creepy, mean little thing and Brad Dourif enjoys himself in the voiceover role, as in the first movie. Second is, there’s a closing chase sequence that takes place inside the toy factory, full of conveyor belts with constructing dolls, and a maze of shelves full of boxed dolls—Andy and the other foster child who comes to rescue him are going through all of this, trying to get away from Chucky. It’s shot well and it looks great. It’s a fine climax for a horror film.

(Also, Christine Elise, as the foster teenager, has a great moment during Chucky’s oncoming demise—giving the finger to Chucky the killer doll earns some number of points.)

But those moments are so few, too little.

Hook (1991)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” is the answer to the question, “What if Peter Pan grew up?” And who better than Spielberg to make it, since he specializes in fantasy and practically has the gift of eternal youth? And while there are some neat, interesting parts in “Hook,” Spielberg unfortunately relies on art direction and “whimsy” clichés to tell a compelling story. Half of the movie is good and half of it is…not.

The setup is the best part of the movie. It starts in modern-day America, as Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a hard-edged lawyer and a workaholic father. He’s able to make time for his six-year-old daughter Maggie’s school play of “Peter Pan,” but misses his ten-year-old son Jack’s little-league baseball game. (He sends somebody to videotape the game.)

Peter takes his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and kids to London to visit Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), who adopted Peter when he was an orphan child. The kids sleep in the same room where the original “Peter Pan” story took place. (Starting to see a connection here?) But that night, the kids are visited by one of Spielberg’s visual trademarks—the strange, blinding light and smoke outside the window. When Peter, Moira, and Granny Wendy go up to investigate, the children are gone, with a kidnap note left behind by the villainous pirate Captain James Hook. It’s then that Granny Wendy asks Peter, “Don’t you remember who you are?” She also says it’s time to return to Neverland.

Of course, Peter thinks Granny Wendy is loony and doesn’t realize that he is the real Peter Pan, grown up. But he gets a little more convincing from a visiting Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts, a little too kind to play the once-jealous fairy), who takes him to Neverland, which is still “second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” (Didn’t make sense then, doesn’t make sense now.)

And so here we are at the magical Neverland, which looks…like an obvious movie set. The original Neverland was a secluded, bright, wonderful place. This Neverland is too cluttered to be magical. There’s too much thrown in here; the art direction is all over the place. It’s a disappointing, unconvincing “fantasy land.”

Anyway, we meet Hook (Dustin Hoffman), his sidekick Smee (Bob Hoskins), and his band of “scurvy” pirates. Hook demands a new war between the pirates and Peter Pan. But seeing as how Peter Pan has grown up and forgotten to fly, it seems pointless. He still keeps the children held prisoner, and so Peter must learn to get back to his original form.

Helping him get back into shape, if you will, are Tinker Bell and a band of playful, wild orphan children called the Lost Boys. And another problem here is that the child actors playing the Lost Boys don’t do very good jobs. They’re either slow on delivery or very flat. It makes the conflict in which Hook tries to make Peter’s kids love him so they’ll forget about their father look much more interesting. (And this subplot does have its moments, such as when Jack realizes that Hook is more of a father than his own father.)

What do I like about the movie? To begin with, I like most of the key actors. Robin Williams is believable as Peter Banning and strangely, equally credible when he’s playing Peter Pan (when he’s not completely obnoxious). Dustin Hoffman is a hoot as Hook. He chews the scenery and treats every one of his scenes with pleasure. He’s fun to watch. Bob Hoskins has a few funny moments as Smee, and Maggie Smith is sweet as Granny Wendy.

I love the setup to the story. It shows a great deal of promise. It’s nice to see the “Peter Pan” in-jokes that make “Hook” feel like a legitimate sequel to “Peter Pan.” And there are some neat little arrangements that I really enjoyed, such as Peter asking his son when he’s going to stop acting like a child. He is a child and Peter must become one to save him.

There were some really funny moments among the pirates, including a “scurvy” cameo by Glenn Close who is sent to a trunk full of scorpions as punishment for not agreeing with Hook.

What I didn’t like about the film, aside from the art direction, were the scenes of strained whimsy, such as when Peter’s daughter sing as schmaltzy little tune that Spielberg thinks is cute enough to be magical, when it’s really forced. Also, the moments in which Peter realizes his own true identity is hurt by many plot holes in Peter Pan’s back story—for example, if he went to Neverland as a baby so he’d never grow up, then why did he grow to be 12 years old?

The final climax is obligatory and leads to many false endings. I’m really tired of these false endings; they slow things down and don’t amount to much, other than just stalling so that the hero can have more chances to defeat the villain.

To tell the truth, it’s the final half of “Hook” that lets the movie down. The first half actually has its clever moments with an intriguing setup and a likeable feel, not to mention game performances by Williams and Hoffman. But “Hook” is much ado about nothing. Maybe if Spielberg actually made his own retelling of the original “Peter Pan” story, we’d have something better. But as it is, it’s ambitious, but cluttered.

Undertow (2004)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Wow…where do I start with this movie?

“Undertow” is one of those “experimental projects” that every director goes through to make sure they can step outside of their comfort zones. Even if that wasn’t the case, “Undertow” is an amazing movie. It takes a fairly straightforward story inside a marathon of deep, personal fantasies and experimented camera shots. This movie is weird. I know that’s a strange criticism to make for a movie that I’m rating four stars, but that’s the spirit of this entire movie. It’s strange, unusual, unbelievable, unnerving, dark, unsettling, disturbing…and I loved every minute of it.

“Undertow” was directed and co-written by David Gordon Green, one of the most intriguing moviemakers I’ve ever come across. His work before this were the indie favorites “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.” There has always been a certain quality to his films that made them special. Maybe it’s the way he lets the characters breathe and gives them room to express in just one camera shot. Maybe it’s the countryside atmosphere he’s surrounded them with. Whatever it is, he uses a lot of it in “Undertow.” In fact, he uses just about everything he can think of to make this familiar story…unfamiliar.

The story follows two brothers—16-year-old Chris (Jamie Bell) and 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan). Chris is a rebel who is constantly in trouble with the law; Tim is a little weirdo who has habits of eating things like mud and paint, and also “organizing my books by the way they smell.” They live in a rural area of Georgia with their widower father John Munn (Dermot Mulroney), so out-of-the-way from society that they can’t even have friends—the only ones to celebrate Tim’s birthday are Chris and Dad.

Their lives are interrupted by John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas), who hasn’t been in contact with his brother for years—he didn’t even know John had two sons. Deel is said to be a wild card, having been in prison for a mysterious reason. John believes Deel wants to do right from now on, so he lets him stay at the farm and work. But Deel is more sinister the more times he becomes acquainted with his two nephews, particularly Chris—there’s a scene in which he intimidates him while speeding in his nice car and saying things like, “I knew your ma first; she was my girl.”

There’s a rare gold collection said to be the gold drachmas that are good for admission across the River Styx into Hades when you die. The collection was given to John by his father, and has hidden them somewhere in the house. That’s exactly what Deel is here for—nothing more, nothing less. But after a violent incident, Chris and Tim run away from home with the gold coins, with Deel searching for them.

Chris and Tim trek along some desolate Southern landscapes and come across some very original individuals, including a young black couple who are accustomed to their rural lifestyle most comfortably and take the boys in briefly. Later, they also come across a camp for homeless people, mainly young people who have nowhere to go.

The story is somewhat similar to “The Night of the Hunter”—children go on the run from a violent man for greed, and they come across unique characters along the way—and the look of the film is as unusual. Also in mind when Green was coming up with the idea, as he said at the Toronto Film Festival, were stories by the Grimms, Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Legends and fairy tales take up a lot of the movie’s spirit and dialogue—the legend of Charon and the River Styx and that old tale about writing a wish on a piece of paper and throwing it inside a bottle into a river. There are many monologues as the boys venture through these desolate, haunting Southern landscapes that it reminds of a film made by Terrence Malick (he actually is a co-producer for the film).

What do I mean when I say David Gordon Green might be “experimenting” with “Undertow?” Consider the opening-credit sequence—there are different video filters (even negative, of all filters), pauses, slow-motion shots, and everything else that can be toyed with, all in a chase scene. As if using all of those editing tricks wasn’t enough, the chase itself is just bizarre. It introduces Chris as he breaks the window of his girlfriend’s bedroom, causing her father to chase after him. It’s a merry chase until Chris, barefoot, accidentally jumps and lands on a nearby wooden plank with a nail sticking out of it. It’s even less pretty to see as it is to hear—it’s a very painful moment. And then, Chris continues to hobble along on his way, with the board still attached to his foot.

And that’s just the beginning of the movie! Trust me; it gets just as strange, if I haven’t already made that point.

Hearing the storyline, one would get the idea that this is a chase picture. But it’s not, in the conventional sense. David Gordon Green doesn’t go for the kicks; he goes for the dread, despair, and menace of the situations—fitting, because they match the landscape.

Jamie Bell, a young British actor (from “Billy Elliot”), has no trouble perfecting his American accent nor does he have trouble making us feel sympathy for Chris. Devon Alan suits the role of Tim well. Dermot Mulroney has a reassuring presence as the boys’ father, and Josh Lucas, playing against type, is certainly menacing as Uncle Deel.

What have I left out? Only the music, I hope. The film is covered by an ominous music score by Philip Glass that gets deeper as the story continues. It’s a chilling, non-comforting score that’s perfect for the film.

There is a chance I may have left something out from “Undertow.” But if there is, you can discover for yourself exactly how unusually thrilling this film is. However, I must warn you that this is not a film that’s easy to watch. It’s the kind of “Southern Gothic” tale that leaves audiences with an uneasy feeling. I won’t lie; it left me uneasy too. “Undertow” is strange, unusual, unbelievable, unnerving, dark, unsettling, disturbing…and I loved every minute of it.

Tuff Turf (1985)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Tuff Turf” was supposed to be the ‘80s version of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story” in that it features teenage hoodlums and a heavy soundtrack. In this case, it’s a confusing bunch of youngsters and an obnoxious rock soundtrack that help make “Tuff Turf” one of the worst, most unpleasant teen movies to come around in the ‘80s.

The strange thing is that it starts out all right. In fact, I really liked the opening scene in which the local teenage gang is mugging an innocent bystander when a kid on a speeding bicycle comes along and is able to foil them, and get away fast. That was inspired and amusing. I was interested in seeing where this was going.

That kid is the protagonist of the story, named Morgan (James Spader), a preppy, rebellious teenager who has moved from Connecticut to the San Fernando Valley after his father lost his business and has taken a job as a taxi driver. Morgan attends his new school, where that same gang from the other night also attends. They’re out to get him, to humiliate him. They thrash his bike. Morgan could have fought back, but he chooses not to because his family keeps telling him that he brings trouble everywhere he goes. But the gang leader’s girlfriend (Kim Richards) catches Morgan’s eye, and his charm turns her on, leading to more danger from the gang.

James Spader and Kim Richards are likable actors, but their characters continue to make one stupid decision after another, just because the plot demands it. What infuriated me about the Richards character was her bizarre motivation (if there was any sort) for choosing to marry the gang leader, after she has realized that she likes Morgan and that the gang leader has treated her like scum.

The soundtrack to the film is just terrible. I wouldn’t even mind half of the rock songs that play throughout the movie, except that they’re all pretty bad. They’re not catchy, nor are they very memorable, except for a terrible cover of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”

There’s one nice scene in the middle in which Morgan, the girlfriend, and their friends (including one played by Robert Downey, Jr. who is appealing, but not used enough) sneak into a country club, and Morgan sings a pleasant song while playing the piano. After all the loud, annoying rock music that has stormed over the film, it was nice to have a quieter, more pleasant music piece.

The film descends into complete madness in the final showdown between Morgan and the gang. It’s so badly-handled, so over the top, and so sadistic that it makes the central fight in “West Side Story” look supervised. What is this movie trying to say with its ending? Violence is the easy way out? There is nothing to gain from this ending—it’s another one of those “if the villain is dead, everything will be fine” climaxes. And what’s worse—the movie laboriously tries to regain its somewhat-light tone by taking us back to a night club immediately after the final fight. Here we are again, it’s fun, we’re hanging out with Morgan and the girl who seem happy together. Then what happens? The credits roll. I have never felt so angry about an ending quite like this.

“Tuff Turf” didn’t know what it wanted to be, so I don’t know what to take more from it. I felt unclean right after I watched it. This movie needed a serious script doctor, a better editor, and much more engaging material for James Spader, who’s actually pretty good in this movie under the circumstances. “Tuff Turf” is a shallow mess.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, and Elaine May were able to take grim material and write it into a feel-good movie like “Heaven Can Wait” is beyond me, but it works. This is a sweet, lighthearted fantasy with some good laughs and sweet moments, despite most of the material having to do with death and murder.

Let me explain—the main character has died before his time and has to go back to Earth in another person’s body, so we get a montage of events for the character to choose somebody. With each turndown, there’s a death. This should be grisly, but the way it’s executed makes it funny. And when he does find a body, there’s a subplot involving people who supposed to be his assistants (one of which is his wife) that attempt to kill him. Grisly? Possibly.

Funny? Yep.

The film stars Beatty (who also co-wrote directed, along with Henry, May, and Robert Towne) as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He’s a chipper young fellow, is more than physically fit, and his team is headed for the Super Bowl. But while riding his bike through the Mulholland Drive tunnel, he collides with a truck and dies…or does he?

Joe finds himself at a way station in the afterlife with his guardian angel (Henry) and the mysterious Mr. Jordan (James Mason). Joe is told that he died, but he believes there’s been some sort of mistake. And he’s right—as it turns out, the angel was on his first assignment, guarding Joe, and mistook the outcome of the incident in the tunnel for Joe’s imminent death. So, Joe was taken before his time and would like to return back to Earth. However, his body has already been cremated and so he must find a new body (someone who is supposed to die, and this is where we get that montage I mentioned).

Joe finds himself in the body of millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth, who had just been poisoned by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his personal secretary Tony (Charles Grodin), who also happens to be Julia’s lover. Mr. Jordan, the angel, and we (the audience) see Joe as Joe, making it easier for us to follow his character—everyone else in the movie sees Joe as Farnsworth, making for some comedic moments of confusion for them. He’s now in charge of the company, which is confusing for him already. But once he gets the gist of it, he’s able to get through to his executives through football talk. He puts an end to the pillage that seems to come through with the company.

Eventually, Joe is able to convince his long-time friend and trainer Max (Jack Warden) who he really is. So Max can help Joe get this new body into shape so he can play for the Rams (after he buys the team), and play in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, there’s a romance he develops with an environmental activist, played by Julie Christie. He likes her a lot, and the feeling becomes mutual—she hated Farnsworth’s policies and actions, but falls for Joe’s easygoingness.

“Heaven Can Wait” has a lot of fun with its story gimmicks, and provides a lot of laughs while keeping the audience ahead of the show. And like I said, there’s a great deal of cheerfulness that makes everything easier and more appealing.

The funniest parts of the movie revolve around Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, who are absolutely hilarious as the main reactors to most of the stuff going on with Farnsworth (not knowing it’s really Joe in his body). Of course they’re surprised and confused that their murder scheme didn’t work and as Cannon freaks out and screams at the top of her lungs, Grodin must calm her down, even though Cannon doesn’t want him to cover her mouth to keep her from exclaiming loudly. And of course, they must try again to murder him swiftly when Joe makes silly decisions.

Jack Warden plays the role of Max very well and has his share of good moments as well, and the same can be said for James Mason and Buck Henry as Joe’s invisible (well, visible only to him) advisors. Warren Beatty is possibly too sincere as Joe (though he is likable for us to follow him). But Julie Christie, as appealing as she is, doesn’t do enough with the nothing role of the love interest.

The ending doesn’t work well for me. It seemed too odd and also kind of contrived. I guess it’s the obligatory happy ending, but I’m just not pleased with the resolution. Without giving it away, it just didn’t do anything for me.

“Heaven Can Wait” is a fun screwball comedy mixed with afterlife-fantasy, mixed with somewhat-macabre material.